James’ Top Ten 2019 Films Without Distribution

Give these films a home for 2020.

Like a lot of folks who are lucky and privileged enough to travel the festival circuit, I get to both see A LOT of films and a lot of films very early. I see over 500 films a year between my work at Alamo and for Fantastic Fest and most of these films never get meaningful distribution. BMD allowed me to make two top ten lists this year, the second being a list of film’s I’ve seen that I’m begging distributors to pick up and release.

There was a point where streaming platforms, Amazon specifically, were buying a lot of festival films and Sundance has a distribution system set up for filmmakers to self-release their movies on digital platforms. Amazon isn’t into that strategy anymore and given that the director of Sundance’s Artist Services has left Sundance, I’m not sure of the state of that initiative. Yes, there are terrific platforms out there like Seed and Spark which can provide both a crowdfunding platform and potential distribution. The truth is that more and more films will get lost these days between their festival premieres and some sort of distribution. Just like studio films, the indie world is becoming very top heavy where a few distributors have pay TV deals in place that allow them to give their films theatrical releases, while most indie distributors are still trying to make money in a transactional world that is quickly moving over to streaming. This, in my opinion, is the biggest problem in our current landscape. We can make more films accessible, but we just don’t have the belief to.

With this in mind, I wanted to share ten films that I was fortunate enough to see this year, that, as far as I know, do not have any form of US distribution yet. My goal in sharing this is twofold. First, if you have the means, I encourage you to license and distribute these films. They are terrific and resonated with me and I think they’ll resonate with others. Two, keep on the lookout for these films in 2020 or beyond! I loved them and I think others will too!


Director: Óscar Martín

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This two hander is about two best friends – David and Javi – who retreat to a house in the country away from it all. Javi (played by international genre star Javier Botet) is an invalid and David isn’t just his best friend, but also his caretaker. He depends on David for everything and that dependence slowly turns their friendship into something much more sinister.

Amigo is that rare film that takes a premise we’re familiar with and twists into something both new and somewhat familiar. If you come out of seeing this thinking about Misery you won’t be alone, but Martin’s film lets you witness the change in the dynamic between these two both slowly and in a way you are right there for during each emotional beat. Trust me my friends, you’ll relish each beat along the way to the heart stopping conclusion.


Director: Shannon Murphy

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I know Florence Pugh is terrific in Little Women. The masses are 100% correct, but not only do I not think that was Florence Pugh’s best performance of 2019 (She’s incredible in Fighting with My Family), but I am not sure she’s even the best actress in the movie. If you’ve seen HBO’s Sharp Objects or Little Women, then you’ve been introduced to Australia’s Eliza Scanlen who is both the best thing in Little Women and the lead in Shannon Murphy’s incredible Babyteeth. Babyteeth is about a high schooler who becomes terminally ill and falls in love along the way. Sounds like another weepy cancer drama, but trust me, that is NOT what Babyteeth really is. Murphy worked with an entirely all female crew to tell this story that mixes in non-linear story-telling with an incredible performance by Scanlen that takes the melodrama to a rich and unusual narrative. Both Murphy and Scanlen are going to break out in Hollywood and this film deserves a wide audience.

Climate of the Hunter

Director: Mickey Reece

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There are two kinds of indie filmmakers: there’s Mickey Reece and there’s everyone else. Ok, that was a tad reductive, but that is honestly the best way to describe the “Soderbergh of the Sticks” who has quietly been banging out almost 30 films in just a few years in Oklahoma City with a crew of local artists, actors and rockers. His latest and 27th film is about two beautiful sisters who vie for the affections of a man from their past who may or may not be a vampire. Like all of Reece’s films, they are heavily melodramatic with strong leanings towards Tennessee Williams and while Reece has no formal training, his instincts about how things look on screen is incredible. He casts actors who aren’t just talented, but they look interesting and they are lucky enough to get to say lines like “I learn to trust my intuitions and my prejudices” and “Just typical of him thinking about pussy in his twilight years”. Watching Reece develop is honestly one of the most exciting aspects of my job and Climate of the Hunter is his best film yet.


Director: Francesco Rizzi

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I am sure you are sick of hearing “Hitchcockian” to describe a film, but we get so few identity mysteries made that it's hard to not use that word when you stumble across a really good one. That’s what Cronofobia is. It is a terrific psychological thriller that doesn’t drift too far from last year's Burning as it delves into similar existential ideas about the nature of identity itself. While that film took the dynamic between three souls to universal heights, Cronofobia deals with two people who are lost and find each other. Michael is a “secret shopper” changing to a new identity every day. Anna is going through tremendous grief from losing her husband and cannot find herself without him. The two connect and find the firm footing they need, but, like it always does in these types of films, that stability cannot last.

This is Rizzi’s first feature and it looks just fantastic with images feeling like they come from the highway at night. The film frequently finds itself at highway rest stops and restaurants. This is where we are away from home and end up being the things that largely define who we are. It’s a terrific debut and I hope this film gets out there, and I’m anxious to see what Rizzi does next.

The Ghost Who Walks

Director: Cody Stokes

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Shot in St. Louis, The Ghost Who Walks is that rare modern film that comes from 1970’s inspiration that doesn’t constantly feel like a xerox copy. It follows Nolan who leaves jail and is immediately on the run from the mob, as he got out of jail by providing evidence against the local crime boss. He just cares about one thing; he wants to see his daughter for the first time. Of course, there are complications, namely his ex is now married to the crime boss out to get Nolan.

The Ghost Who Walks is one of dozens of “exploitation” homages I see every year, but I rarely see one better. It looks fantastic and it's built on characters first. The film spends a lot of time with Nolan as a three-dimensional character and not an exploitation caricature. This movie has heart and it also has a lot of humor and Nolan’s friend Stiches provides several memorable one-liners. Since there’s no cast, this is a tough film to make work in distribution, but it deserves some sort of audience. It's just too good to be lost and it has one hell of an ending.

The Last to See Them

Director: Sara Summa

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This is a student thesis film that was good enough to play Berlinale and a handful of US fests in 2019. The opening text reads “On a Saturday night in late summer 2012, the Durati Family was killed during the robbery of their house.” The characters in the film (and this is based on an actual crime) are all going to die and die violently, but Summa isn’t interested in telling the story about the violent act or even showing the act itself. She’s interested in showing the lives of the people who died. It's a remarkable experiment and delves into big ideas about violence in film and how we depict it and what that costs. This is not a film for everyone. Like I said, it's an experiment, but it's very uncommon to see something so impactful as The Last to See Them as an experiment. Even Haneke started somewhere.

The Magnificent Obsession of Michael Reeves

Director: Dima Dallin

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Michael Reeves was only twenty-five when he died, but he made four films in Great Britain from 1964 to 1968 that left a significant impression on those who have seen them, yours truly included. This doc examines Reeves, his career and his place in cinema history through extensive research and valuable talking heads who are academic experts. This is not a hero worship type doc like most biopics. This is a definitive and exhaustive analysis of why Reeves was so special. Reeves and his movies have a cult following but it's hard not to see this and wonder what British cinema would have been like if Reeves didn’t pass away so young. At the very least, I hope this ends up as a special feature on a re-release of one of Reeves’ films (Criterion, hopefully you are reading) as this doc is just so well done and provides valuable context to a filmmaker who will be a discovery to many.


Director: Karl Markovics

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Well, first and foremost, don’t just trust me, as Evan put this film on his top 10 list for 2019. I am also pretty sure that another BMD colleague, the amazing and talented Amelia, will probably never go see another film at Fantastic Fest that I recommend ever again (and I think she kinda liked it?). That’s Nobadi in a nutshell. It’s a film that guarantees a strong emotional response. It's not brutal as most films that provoke that type of audience reaction. It does sneak up on you. On one hand, it’s a tender, heartfelt narrative about a 90+year old Austrian pensioner who has a chance at humanity through a young Afghani refugee. On the other hand…. well…let’s just say you must see it to understand.

Evan’s right, this is easily one of the best films seen in 2019. It does a better job at reminding us that more that connects us than divides us than one end-of-the-year Hollywood release. It’s also the right movie for right now as one of those things that divides us is immigration and how we treat those seeking a better life for themselves and their family. It’s a highly relevant film that keeps its best themes hidden until the very end. I hope that this gets out there for the masses to see. It’s a wonderful achievement in filmmaking and it deserves as big an audience as possible.

Pelican Blood

Director: Katrin Gebbe

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As someone who distributed Katrin’s first film, Nothing Bad Can Happen, trust me when I say if you release this film, you are getting in on the ground floor of one of the world’s emerging stars. Katrin has twice now taken the idea of faith and layered in a domestic drama with genre overtones with the expertise of a master. This time, Gebbe is working with German thespian Nina Hoss who is one of Germany’s best young actresses. Hoss plays Wiebke, a single mother of an adopted 9-year-old named Nicolina. Wishing to adopt a sister for Nicolina, she finds her new daughter in 5-year-old Raya. But when Wiebke and Nicolina bring Raya home, she immediately starts acting out. Raya isn’t just challenging her boundaries; something is really wrong with her, and it could be something beyond physical understanding.

Gebbe this time is exploring the driving forces of motherhood and a mother’s bond with her child. Comparisons to The Exorcist are valid: mothers and daughters bound together both by love and something possibly evil. The results here are considerable and even beautiful in the face of the darkest and most horrible possibilities. 


Director: Alice Winocour

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This one seems like the most likely of these ten to find a home. It has star power and it can be packaged in a way to emphasize the “NASA” (note – it’s not about NASA) aspects of the film. It’s a down to Earth (literally) space drama about Sarah, a woman training to go to space (the always amazing Eva Green) while she balances motherhood and an occupation that’s dominated by men (including Matt Dillon) who would rather not make room for females in space.

This film, for me, did everything right that Lucy in the Sky did wrong. It can be heavy-handed, but it's always meaningful. Sarah is constantly jumping back and forth between her training and her daughter. We can’t help but reminded that for real working mothers out there, this is reality. Winocour’s third film moves along at a brisk pace so all the Right Stuff space training parts are exciting and the mother-daughter parts are given equal weight so we know that everything Sarah is training to do will take her away from the best thing on the planet.